Bernard Mattson reviews Victor Grossman's 'A socialist defector - from Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee'
Victor Grossman was a revolutionary, born into a communist family in the USA. This had previously been legal, but in 1951, when he was drafted into the army, he had to say whether he had been in any of a number of various organisations. He had, but he hoped that, if he kept his head down and his mouth shut, then he could live out his military career in peace and quiet. Conscription had been renewed for Korea, but he was fortunate enough to be sent to Germany. This was also the time of peak McCarthyism.
His commanding officer sent for him one day. He had been rumbled and he was told he could face a $10,000 fine plus five years in prison for failing to disclose his views. As he says in the book, “With no-one to consult or advise me, I simply panicked.” And he swam across the Danube!
After a while he was accepted, made welcome and, in time, got more education, a job, a home and a family. His job was that of a journalist, and he is a fine writer. As with most people in the German Democratic Republic, his education was free and his job was secure. His home and a basic standard of living for himself and his family were for him, and the rest of the population, guaranteed.
Early on in the book he looks at some of the historical events that are well known in the world: the ‘Berlin airlift’ of 1948, the strikes of 1953, the building of the Berlin wall and, in refreshing contrast to mainstream media in the west, he gives them some context.
Throughout the book he raises criticisms of the GDR - the Stasi, the leadership, the influence of the USSR and so on. So this is not an apologia or justification for a regime. But at the same time he does introduce, as I have said, some context and he is more than happy to compare what was happening in the GDR with the situation in West Germany and the USA, among others.
One of the first differences he notes, at some length, between east and west Germany concerns the extent of de-Nazification. In the GDR the new leaders were not only communists, but they had been fighting Nazism for years: some in Germany, including some from the USSR, while some had fought in Spain. De-Nazification was thorough. Grossman goes through this in detail: politicians, local and national, were replaced, as were teachers, lecturers, members of the police and the judiciary. The only exception was the military. They needed senior officers to direct training and operations, but they had few of their own. They trained up junior officers as quickly as possible and put the old Wehrmacht crowd out to grass.
This was in contrast, as he makes clear, with west Germany. After the initial and highly public Nuremberg trials, many Nazis got their old jobs back - some were actually promoted. Grossman goes through this too in detail, as he does with everything he looks at in the book. The USA too kept some Nazis in place, of course - the best known being Wernher von Braun for his rockets, Reinhard Gehlen for his anti-communist spy network and Klaus Barbie to guide the torturers and killers of US client states in South America.
But many more Nazis - named by Grossman - went on to take up leading roles in the west German government, as well as in all of the other functions of the state. Private-enterprise Nazis were also mostly kept in place and many increased their wealth and influence.
Another theme well covered by Grossman was life as it was lived in the GDR. Regardless of what western propagandists might have said over the years, it was not a life of unrelenting misery. Yes, it took a long time to rebuild after the war, but everyone was guaranteed a home with rent at an eighth or 10th of income. And then, as Grossman says of basic food prices after rationing ended in 1958, “Amazingly - some said unwisely - these new prices stayed firmly frozen for over 30 years, until the end of the GDR.”
This was no paradise, as he makes clear, but housing, food, education, jobs, childcare, medical services … were what millions of people throughout the world - even in the US and Europe - can only dream of now. But a constant barrage of western propaganda made sure that east Germans had some other dreams to live with.
Grossman became a journalist. This was not his only job: he was also a translator and he found that, while there were many Germans who could translate from English into German, there were fewer who could do it the other way round. He would also give lectures. He tells the tale of a joke he made at a lecture (non-spoiler alert: I’m not going to tell it here - read the book). At the punchline a few of the audience laughed and after a pause many more joined in. It was not because they were slow to appreciate his joke: it was just unknown for a political lecturer to tell one.
At one point, writing about the Stasi and its relationship to the general population, he comments that most people were happy to crack jokes about the Stasi. They were not afraid to do so.
Grossman also married and had children. There was statutory maternity (and paternity) leave. Top-rank healthcare was free, as was the childcare that enabled both parents to return to work. They had enjoyable holidays.
Not surprisingly, a major event in his life was the end of the GDR - or ‘the Wende’, as he refers to it. As Wikipedia has it, “‘Wende’ (the turn-around) refers to a historical process in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the years 1989 and 1990, after the Soviet reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.” It was a peaceful change and one that many in the GDR had been looking forward to. It was greeted in the west as a great triumph for ‘freedom and democracy’, but it had its problems - not least for the former GDR citizens.
I remember around 25 years ago hearing an interview with a Hungarian man on the radio. “We thought capitalism meant Sweden and America,” he said. “We didn’t know about Brazil.” Grossman recounts what happened to so many. For a start the east German mark was valued at half of a west German mark. And then the vultures flew in from the west. Companies were bought at knock-down prices and then in many cases closed, as assets were sold on at a profit.
People came looking for the houses that their ancestors had left generations before and demanded, and got, the removal of residents who had lived there for generations. Soon childcare, healthcare, job security, etc all went down the drain. At first people welcomed the exotic tastes of bananas and cherries, but then they had to pay for them.
As Grossman points out, managers and politicians in east Germany had no experience of the cut-throat economics of capitalism and so were cheated left, right and centre with ease. He gives the names of pillaging companies and fraudsters that took what they could from the east and made the population pay. Many, with skills and training - medical professionals, for instance - moved west. As Grossman points out a few times, this is largely what the Berlin wall was built to prevent.
He gives an example where a western commentator compares the efficiency of production before and after the Wende. The number of workers needed for the same output has declined to an enormous extent. But Grossman points out that in the heavy ‘overstaffing’ of GDR times were included crèche workers, medical staff, union officials - not to mention the holidays and leisure time that was now reduced.
Workers in the east also joked (joked?) about how in the GDR they could at least discuss and argue with their bosses and even win concessions: what they could not do was argue with the regime. Now, with their new-found freedom they could insult and denigrate their political masters and mistresses as much as they liked, but heaven help them if they dared to argue with the boss!
But what of Victor Grossman himself? Well, he gained an honourable discharge from the army, and was free to travel, with his family, to his homeland and back. His wife was startled to see the poverty in the USA: obesity at a level she had never seen, and was not yet prevalent in east Germany. And then there were all the people sleeping on the streets and in doorways - also completely new. Grossman, having followed news of the US over the years, was less surprised.
But he was glad to see his homeland again and to talk in a more familiar language. He met some old pals from college and was glad to travel around and see the beautiful country. The GDR was beautiful too, but there was a difference of scale.
One point he makes late in the book is of his experience with the insulin he needed. He had forgotten to bring his spare doses to the US and was told that what he needed would cost him $540. He went away to think about it and on his return was told that he could have it for $450 - so it was variable. Thinking, wrongly as it turned out, that he could claim it on his travel insurance, he paid up. In west Germany it would have cost him the equivalent of $10 and in the GDR it was free! He writes movingly as well of the experience of poor Americans seeking medical and dental care.
Grossman deals with the nature of our rulers in a section entitled ‘Keeping people happy and satisfied’. He goes on:
A chief interest of leaders in every country, no matter what its political or economic system, is in safeguarding not just their immediate positions and possessions, but also the economic and political system that guarantees them. Like nearly every organism - animal, vegetable or human - their basic motivation is self-preservation.
He examines the ways that ‘leaders’ keep people happy - or at least under control. He looks at east and west: elections, censorship, the media, jingoism - there are all sorts of ways. But then he comes to the crunch:
What usually happens when people in powerful positions can no longer rely on media blandishments and distractions, unconvincing electoral choices or jingoistic calls for patriotic support of ‘our brave boys’ (and now ‘our brave girls’) abroad, or on various domestic pressures?
It all sounds so familiar, does it not?
“When all such methods fail, to help modern-day King Canutes roll back angry waves, what do they do then? A main resort is violence.”
This sounds pretty familiar too, and Grossman goes on to outline some of these “resorts”. He has a long list of the attacks by corporations and their state allies on US workers over the years. Some I had heard of, such as the Palmer raids and the Peekskill attack (look online or - better - read the book). Attacks on unions, civil rights organisers, Black Panthers and all sorts of protests. Many other instances in US history I had never heard of, but I am guessing that to him, being brought up in a communist family, such tales were bread and butter. He is also undoubtedly a good journalist and has done the research in this case.
One piece of research he made when back in the USA - after a seven-year wait for his ‘freedom of information’ return - gave him access to very lengthy FBI reports on himself. Though, as he says, “Looking through those 1,100 pages, I sometimes had to smile.” Such errors, such desperation. As others have found, the FBI spent enormous amounts of time, effort and money accomplishing not very much, though also doing the same to cause enormous harm to innocent people.
He gives a run-down on US international crimes over the years - it is obviously quite a long list, but here too he continues to be thorough and very readable. He spends some time looking at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’ speech that he gave in his ‘state of the union’ address in January 1941. The four are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Grossman looks at these and how they have developed in the decades since. He admits from the start that the GDR fell down on the first, but he also notes the people imprisoned, jobs lost and lives ruined in the US for their views - a good example being Paul Robeson. He points to a jumble of responses to religion by the leadership in the GDR.
As for ‘freedom from want’, he refers again to the initial shock of his wife on seeing the destitute on the streets in the US and writes about homelessness, the lack of medical treatment, foodbanks and all the other ‘wants’ in this, the richest country in the world.
As for ‘fear’, Grossman looks at what has rained down on countries around the world by the USA - Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala and so many more. Readers will be familiar with most of these, but not necessarily all: he follows through year by year - and readers will be aware that it is a very long list.
However, he says, “Lest my critical remarks about my homeland seem to be one-sided dissing … I wish to stress that in my eyes every American villain, past or present, has been outbalanced in the scales of history.”
And he goes on to name the numerous ‘villains’ that can be counterposed to his heroes, whom he also names. From Jefferson Davis to John Brown, John D Rockefeller to Martin Luther King, J Edgar Hoover to Woody Guthrie - there are plenty of both.
In the last few pages Grossman reflects on his life, what he gained and what he missed. He looks ahead too at the crises facing humanity and at the need for “organised action … with energy, solidarity and also group self-discipline.”
And today, at 92, he is still alive, still living in Germany, still writing1 and he is still “a communist” - good man!
1. See, for example, counterpunch.org/2020/10/02/thirty-years-of-a-unified-germany.↩︎